Les Claypool: Deep Into The Fungi

By: Matt Dalley

Les Claypool by Jay Blakesberg
With his wildly experimental music and eccentric personality, electric bass legend Les Claypool has been freaking out the eardrums of music fans worldwide since the 1980s. The role he took as lead singer and bass player for alt-rock trio Primus sent Claypool skyrocketing into the public eye. After Primus went on hiatus in 2000, a few musical side projects, the occasional show with Primus and a plethora of other endeavors led the bass virtuoso to his current gig - selling out venues across Americas while promoting his most recent work of solo aural art, Of Fungi and Foe (released March 17 on Prawn Song).

As one of the music industry's more ambitious players, Les Claypool didn't always have the luxury of a cult following like he does today, rather his beginnings are quite humble. It was during his freshman year of high school that his enjoyment of listening to music began to evolve into a passion for playing it.

"We [Les and his father] went down to Al's Music, he knew Al, and we bought this Fender P-Bass copy. I pulled weeds all summer to pay for the damn thing. And because there weren't that many bass players back then - everybody wanted to be Eddie Van Halen - I was in big demand immediately. So, I was instantly in a band," remembers Claypool.

Claypool has come a long way since high school. Currently, it's not uncommon for the musician to be found galloping around a large stage at a massive music festival, appearing at ease in front of tens of thousands of fans. However, his first public performance couldn't have been any more to the contrary. "My first gig was in the cafeteria at our high school and I was so nervous I stood sideways 'cause I couldn't look at the audience," Claypool reminisces.

Post-high school, Claypool accrued valuable experience by playing in a number of local bands, including an R&B outfit that primarily played to the occupants of biker bars in Northern California. "I was playing for Hell's Angels pretty much every weekend. That was good discipline for me," he comments. "I learned a lot in those days."

With his dues fully paid, Claypool formed Primus in 1984. Primus spent years moving up the musical ladder of fame. Out of the six studio albums Primus released, two (Sailing the Seas of Cheese and Pork Soda) attained platinum status. Although Primus acquired international recognition and a Grammy nomination, their obscure sound remains challenging to categorize.

Les Claypool
"We've been listed as alternative back in the day. We were progressive metal at one point in time. We were punk funk. When we opened for U2, we were listed as a grunge band," explains Claypool. "We've played with all these different artists through all these different things, so I don't really know what to call it or how to define any of this."

In the early 2000s, when Primus took a hiatus, Claypool had the opportunity to focus on other projects. However, even before Primus took the break, Claypool had other combos in the works. Formed in 2000, Oysterhead was one of the more well-known projects Claypool played a role in. Oysterhead involved Phish's six-string shredder Trey Anastasio and drummer Stewart Copeland from The Police. Oysterhead's only release, 2001's The Grand Pecking Order, garnered three-and-a-half stars from Rolling Stone and a world tour.

During the Oysterhead days, Claypool also spent time with another side project, Colonel Les Claypool's Fearless Flying Frog Brigade. The group, that included the likes of Skerik, Jack Irons, Tim Alexander and Mirv, was originally concocted for the Mountain Aire Festival in Calaveras County, California. The lengthy band name is an allusion to Mark Twain's 1867 work "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras Country." The collective, often simply referred to as the Frog Brigade, released one studio album, Purple Onion, and two live album's, Live Frogs: Set 1 and Live Frogs: Set 2. The latter of the two live albums is a cover of Pink Floyd's entire epic Animals album.

Les Claypool by Jay Blakesberg
Another major endeavor, Colonel Claypool's Bucket of Bernie Brains, began seemingly by chance. Praxis and Les Claypool were both slated to play Bonnaroo in 2002. When Praxis bass player Bill Laswell found himself unable to perform, the entire band was nearly dropped from the bill. Saving the day, Claypool stepped in and volunteered his talents by offering to jam with the available members which included keyboard wizard Bernie Worrell, best known for his work with Parliament-Funkadelic and The Talking Heads. Also sharing the stage was the mysterious, mask-donning guitarist Buckethead and drummer Bryan "Brain" Mantia. Although the impromptu group played no pre-rehearsed songs, members of the band felt great about what happened that fateful day in Tennessee.

"The first note I ever played with Bernie Worrell was in front of 5,000 people," says Claypool. "We just enjoyed it." Jamming remained a popular theme of Colonel Claypool's Bucket of Bernie Brains, often referred to as C2B3, especially as the band recorded and released their only album, The Big Eyeball in the Sky.

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